OP more than ready


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DALE CITY — Ashley Keller stood next to the scorer’s table Wednesday night with a notebook in one hand and a pencil in the other.

With all the numbers and decimal points staring back at her, the Osbourn Park senior felt like she’d just been handed a math exam.

“That can’t be right,” she said, after some intense addition produced a 138.1 score for the Yellow Jackets gymnastics team.

Neither Keller nor any of her teammates expected that type of result in their first meet of the 2002 season. But the proof was right in Keller’s hands and her calculations were right on target.

The numbers told her that even without one of their top gymnasts, the Yellow Jackets were better than she could have imagined.

“We didn’t feel like we were ready at all,” Keller said. “We’d practiced really hard, but we weren’t sure we’d put everything together.”

Osbourn Park competed without Level 10 sophomore Sally May, who is recovering from a club injury. But the Yellow Jackets’ collective uncertainty stemmed from the fact that they were opening the season against Gar-Field, the defending Northwest Region champions, and a vastly improved Forest Park team that brought 15 gymnasts onto the floor exercise mat for introductions.

“We were so nervous,” Keller admitted. “And we were a little intimidated because Forest Park had 15 girls.”

“We just expected to come in and experiment a little and see where we can improve for later meets,” senior teammate Kelly Stevison added.

With more than two months worth of competitions remaining, the Yellow Jackets didn’t leave much wiggle room. At their best last winter, they scored a 139.65 and that was in the Cedar Run District championship meet.

The bar was raised considerably on Wednesday thanks to another electrifying all-around performance from Stevison and three inspiring efforts from Keller, sophomore Beth Ploger and junior Devon Alston.

“I’m so excited. I started jumping up and down,” said Ploger, after the Yellow Jackets put together four solid vaults on the final rotation of the night to pull off a tri-meet victory.

“It’s not what I expected,” she said. “It’s better than I expected.”

None of the teams were at full strength. Gar-Field’s Megan Sullivan missed the first meet of her senior season because she was interviewing for an appointment to the Naval Academy while two of Forest Park’s top all-arounders — Elisa Rhynedance and Nicole Blades — did not compete because of injury.

That left all three squads with something to look forward to.

Though Gar-Field finished third with 124.7 points, Indians coach Ray Roman reminded his gymnasts that last season started with a dual-meet tally of 128.4.

And in the Forest Park huddle, coach Cris Rhynedance was beaming after her team came up with a score of 133.1.

“I’m proud of them. They did really well,” Rhynedance said. “The most important thing was they had fun.”

Part of the fun was watching junior Valerie Ierley land a punch front mount on the balance beam and then turn it into a third-place score of 9.1. There was also obvious joy in seeing junior Jessica Kuschel tie for second place in her first all-around performance since midway through her freshman season.

“I just wanted to come out and have fun and do my thing,” said Kuschel, who scored a 9.2 on the balance beam and tied Gar-Field’s Tracy Cloninger for second place with a 34.8 in the all-around.

“Our team’s coming along,” Kuschel said. “It’s going to be fun. The girls are awesome.”

Ierley finished with an overall score of 33.0 while newcomer Holly Bagwell made an impressive varsity debut with a 31.0 for the Bruins.

Another first-year varsity gymnast, Gar-Field’s Han Vo, also showed promise with a 31.7 in her first all-around effort, but the big scores of the night belonged mostly to the Yellow Jackets.

Stevison, showing no ill effects from the broken foot that prevented her from competing in the state meet last winter, earned a 9.8 on her Phelps vault and scored a 37.4 overall in a dominating all-around performance.

Keller, a regional qualifier last winter, finished second on the floor exercise and fourth in the all-around with a score of 33.9. Ploger was right behind her — placing third on vault and beam en route to a 33.8 overall. Alston, who was second on the vault with a 9.1, scored a 33.0 in the all-around, while Lauren Hagler competed for the first time on the balance beam and uneven bars.

“I just went up there and did the best I could. That’s what we all did,” said Keller, whose personal goal for the season is to learn two new skills on every event.

“I hadn’t done a full routine on anything but beam and everything except for beam was good,” Ploger said. “I was really happy with bars because, as usual, I was really scared about my shootover. But I kept my feet up for the first time in months.”

The Yellow Jackets trailed Forest Park by three-tenths of a point going into the final rotation, but they combined for a meet-high 36.6 on vault to pull out the victory.

“I thought Sally would help us get a 138,” Ploger said. “We’re going to do so much better when she comes.”

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